The Muslims Among Us

Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently took it to the Senate floor to publicly denounce accusations by five of his Republican colleagues in Congress that Ms. Huma Abedin, a Muslim American and a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood that is trying to infiltrate the highest level of the U.S. government. In his powerful and moving statement, Senator McCain called the allegations against Ms. Abedin “unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable citizen, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant.” Such fear-invoked and ignorance-based attacks, as he eloquently put it, “defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”

Incidents like this remind us that mistrust of Muslims and Islam still persists and rears its ugly head all too often. This happens to be the holy month of Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims worldwide, which started July 20 this year. Throughout the capital region, Muslims in our communities are hosting numerous Iftar events to celebrate the breaking of the fast and to share their cultural heritage with the larger community and with fellow Muslims.

Because of my previous job, I have had the rare opportunity of working with many Muslim community organizations made of Pakistanis, Iranians, Turks, Egyptians, Indonesians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Bangladeshis, and native born Americans of all ethnicities. What I have learned about Muslims in our community is truly inspiring. They strike me as one of the most highly engaged and empowered communities conscientious of contributing to and connecting with the larger community.

Since “9.11,” Muslim Americans have had a greater sense of urgency to improve the public’s perception of the community. New organizations such as the Montgomery County Muslim Council (MCMC) and its sister organization, the Montgomery County Muslim Foundation (MCMF), were born with the explicit purposes of serving the greater Montgomery County community (not just Muslims) and to encourage activism, while existing organizations have become more aware of civic and political engagement. In just a few short years, MCMC and MCMF have become highly-regarded organizations with such staple programs as the annual food drives, holiday baskets, and feed-the-hungry, in partnership with local charities and the government.

Another exemplary organization is the Muslim Community Center, which operates a health clinic that has made a name for itself in the region for offering free health care provided by volunteer doctors and staffers to the uninsured and low-income residents regardless of their faiths or ethnicities. In providing much-needed services to our community, MCC has become an integral part of our local fabric and an important partner of local government. These organizations are not alone. MARTI, the Maryland Turkish American Inhabitants, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community often host educational forums and actively reach out to the larger community for dialogues and understanding. Other active groups in our community include the Islamic Center of Maryland, the Islamic Society of Germantown, the Islamic Center of Washington Area, and the Pakistani American Association.

Such activism reflects the Muslim community’s foresight in turning individual success into community success, and their gratitude for the freedom, opportunities and respect they enjoy in this country. Since 2009, Montgomery County has been hosting public Ramadan Iftar educational programs (paid by community donations), as we have done for the Diwali tradition celebrated by Indians and other South Asians. Such community relationship building at the local level, no matter how large or small it may seem, contributes to community good will and helps ensure that the United States remains an infertile ground to those extremists who ARE trying to influence our youths and hijack a religion.

What Muslim communities are doing is what all of us ought to do—to be better informed, engaged and empowered citizens and communities. In the words of MCMC founder and community leader, Mr. Tufail Ahmad, “the white population in our community is not growing, and most of the charitable activities are done by the white community, so the minority communities need to step up. The Muslim community is doing well. We don’t need much, but we have a lot to offer.” One doesn’t have to agree with Mr. Ahmad’s assessment completely to admire his sense of duty towards the local community and fellow Americans. This is what makes us all richer as a people and a nation.

 

Elections and Asian Americans

If you live in Maryland, you probably know that our primary election is on April 3, much earlier than previous years. Chances are, you have received multiple mailings from both your local Board of Elections and from candidates, especially if you live in the new Congressional District 6, where it’s a serious contest in both the primary and general elections.

Local elections can be confusing as relatively few people pay attention to local politics, especially for the largely-immigrant Asian community, which does not have deep local ties to really know the issues or the candidates. In spite of greater efforts by the party establishments and campaigns to reach out to our community and greater overall participation from our community in recent years as voters, donors, volunteers or organizers, or even candidates, a host of challenges remain in our election participation.

In Maryland, most of the elections are decided by the primary race, especially in the heavily minority jurisdictions where Asians congregate, such as Montgomery, Howard, Prince George’s and Baltimore city.

Since many Asian American voters are not registered with any parties, they cannot vote for most of the candidates in the primary election, and by the time they cast their votes in the general election, the results are so predictable that their votes don’t really matter much. The reluctance among Asians to be associated with any
parties means this phenomenon is unlikely to change in the near future – unless we change the policy to allow independents to vote for party candidates.

The small number of active participants in election activities leads to over-taxing of community leaders and connectors, who are being asked by a growing number of organizations and campaigns to open our wallets and rolodexes to support various candidates and party campaigns. It can be exhausting and expensive for a very frugal community that still brings lunch to work to save money and does not always understand why so much money is needed for elections.

It is one thing to reach out for money and votes; quite another for advice and understanding. So far, we have been mostly playing a cheerleading or supporting role. Very rarely do campaigns or parties take the time to learn about our communities’ dynamics, interests and priorities, or to get our advice on critical issues.

So we mostly cast our votes based on name recognition, campaign rhetoric or personal relationship rather than real issues that matter to us. Until the parties and the campaigns learn to engage our communities on a continuous basis and better yet, to cultivate true leadership in the Asian community, we will continue to see what I call the “eagle effect”—organizations or individuals swooping down to seek our support when needed then disappearing into thin air.

Finally, the national debate on illegal immigration has made Latinos synonymous with immigration. Often times, it is assumed that all immigrants support pro-immigrant legislations such as the Dream Act, which would allow those who were brought to this country illegally as children enjoy in-state college tuition if they graduate from Maryland’s high schools.

The fact is, the Asian community is highly divided on this issue as they were in 2009 when Montgomery County started reporting individuals charged with violent crimes to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after a couple of high profile killings committed by undocumented residents.

A community made of largely swing voters is fair game for any party wanting to earn our trust and votes. The fact that most Asians vote for Democrats has more to do with the lack of serious outreach from the Republican Party and the perception that Democrats are more minority-friendly, than with where the parties stand on issues.

With immigrants and our families, including our American-born children, making up an increasingly larger share of almost every community in the region, it is time the political parties integrate multicultural (and multilingual if necessary) outreach into their psyche and strategy for their own long-term benefits. No matter who we support, our core values of family cohesiveness (lowest divorce rate among all racial groups), education (highest educational attainment), and personal responsibility (highest savings rate) don’t change.

The fact that Maryland is the only state in the country with three Indian Americans in its state legislature, in addition to a Chinese American and a Filipino American, is sure progress. True social integration can take generations, but let’s not waste any generation, foreign-or American- born.

The article was originally published in Asian Fortune’s April edition.

New Year’s Resolution: Give Where You Live

This article was originally published in Asian Fortune January, 2012 edition, http://www.asianfortunenews.com/site/article_0112.php?article_id=25.

During the holiday season, you must have received countless mailings and calls from around the country asking for your donations to charitable causes. It can be overwhelming. After all, how do you choose among feeding the hungry, curing diseases, helping wounded veterans, educating at-risk youth, and protecting the environment? While you may already have your favorite charities, including some halfway around the country or around the world in your home countries where you came from, I am urging you to give locally, where you and your family and community now call home. There are many great reasons to give where you live, but here are a few that have compelled me to give locally each year.

  • Investing in the well-being of the community at large helps build strong communities that benefit all of us. A report on the Greater Washington, DC charities a few years ago showed that for every dollar invested in local charities, we get an average of five dollars of return in economic benefits in reduced need for government services or avoidance of greater crisis down the road that could be far more costly to all of us as taxpayers and members of the society.
  • Giving locally helps us pay attention to local affairs and gets us connected at a deeper level. Many important policy decisions were made without our communities’ direct input because we did not bother to read about them in local papers or show up at town halls or find some other ways to shape the outcomes. Giving makes us focus on who we give to and why. It also helps us exercise our influence and exert our voices.
  • Giving locally enhances our communities’ image and relationships with the larger communities, especially when you do that in an organized fashion. If we are perceived as only interested in economic opportunities, we cannot enjoy the true benefits of social integration at the local level. The Muslim community in Montgomery County has been a great model among new communities in that regard. For example, the Montgomery County Muslim Council (www.mcmcouncil.org) was founded with the dual mission of serving the larger community and increasing Muslim community’s activism and visibility. In the words of its visionary founder, Mr. Tufail Ahmad, the Muslim community doesn’t need much but has much to give. In just a few years since its founding, MCMC and its affiliate MCMF have made a great name for themselves through their range of charitable activities. Another one, the Muslim Community Center (www.mccmd.org), runs a highly successful health clinic for the uninsured and low-income, by using the wealth of medical expertise within the Muslim community to serve the larger community while building good will.

Many of us came from countries with no tradition of an independent nonprofit sector, so charitable giving, especially giving to those we don’t feel connected to, is not deeply rooted in our cultural psyche. In this country, nonprofits, especially charitable organizations, are an American beauty. They are critical partners of the public and the private sectors doing what neither one of them can do alone or cost effectively. They are a measure of a society’s civility and collective conscience.

As we become more established both individually and as a community, we are in a much better position to give. At the risk of playing favoritism, I am recommending a few local Asian American charitable organizations that provide vital services to the most vulnerable among us so they may lead a dignified life.  Due to space limits, I am only offering links so you may check them out online.

For a list of local charities, visit the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington (www.nonprofitroundtable.org) or the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region (www.thecommunityfoundation.org).
This New Year, let’s put “give where you live” on our New Year’s resolutions list. Let’s pay it forward–it’s the American way.

Why You Should Serve on Boards, Committees and Commissions

(published in Asian Fortune August 2011 issue)

Like many busy professionals who live and work in this area, I used to commute to Washington, DC for my job and find it hard to get involved in the local community where I live.  So I applied to serve on the Montgomery County Commission for Women, and the Nominating Committee for Montgomery College’s Board of Trustees.  I also enrolled in Leadership Montgomery to learn about the various aspects of the County and to get better connected with other community leaders.  These experiences not only gave me a deeper appreciation of the many treasures in our community, but also a much stronger sense of belonging to this place that I now call home. 

  Even without the Census data or official reports, anyone living in the capital region knows how dramatically more diverse we are now than just a generation ago.  In fact, Montgomery County today is half non-white and 1/3 foreign-born.  While such diversity has brought about a great deal of community vitality, social integration at community level remains a challenge. 

  For the most part, the immigrant communities, regardless of our countries of origins, are organized along the lines of ethnicities, languages, and nationalities.  Even professional and trade groups such as the numerous chambers of commerce and technology-based associations are largely ethnic based.  Not to mention the abundant supply of in-language services in just about any areas you can think of and the plethora of performing arts groups with a dizzying array of shows year round catering to the specific ethnic communities.  If we don’t make a conscientious effort to step out of our comfort zones, we can easily live our entire lives in our invisible ethnic enclaves without much meaningful interaction with the larger communities beyond our jobs or business activities. 

  A great way to expand our horizon and integrate with the larger community is to serve on a local government or community nonprofit’s board, committee or commission that oversees policy issues.  These are mostly volunteer positions designed for greater citizen involvement.  Montgomery County, for example, has over 80 boards, committees and commissions that oversee a broad range of issues and services with direct impact on our everyday lives, in addition to countless community nonprofit boards.  A list of all County boards and vacancy announcements can be found at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/boards.  You can find other jurisdictions’ information on their respective web sites. 

  The benefits of serving on the boards, committees and commissions are manifold.  I can easily think of at least five good reasons why you should apply for one right away. 

1.  Expand your horizon and add an interesting dimension to your life.  At the very least, serving on the boards can open your eyes to many new resources and services that you or your community can take advantage of.  It’s also a great way to develop a new area of interests or expertise that can come handy and even enhance your professional and personal portfolio. 

2.  Influence local government and policies.  From public libraries to consumer protection, from transportation to energy and air quality, you get to exert influence on a variety of local issues closely related to our daily lives.  You’re already paying taxes, so why not weigh in on how the local government should work?

3.  Connect with others in your neighborhood with similar interests.  You will work with some talented and passionate people in our community, including highly accomplished individuals in their professional fields and very engaged citizens who have done amazing things in our community. 

4.  Develop communication and leadership skills.  Whether it’s an extension of your professional work or a new adventure, serving on the boards affords you the opportunity to verbally articulate your thoughts in meetings and learn proper ways to conduct meetings and address conflicts if you become the chairperson.  The beauty of learning these skills in a volunteer setting is that the risk of making mistakes is rather low to you. 

5.  Have a sense of belonging and ownership.  Few things in life foster the feeling of belonging better than working together with others.  Your will also develop a stronger sense of ownership when you find yourself paying attention to many local issues beyond the scope of your board. 

Board positions require County Executive appointment and many are competitive.  To learn more about boards, committees and commissions in Montgomery County, please visit www.montgomerycountymd.gov/boards.

Guest speaker at Tea4Soul

I had a wonderful time talking on Saturday (July 9) at the Tea4Soul forum on demographics and community dynamics, life in America and career choices, including the role of government.  The audience was so engaged and enthusiastic I felt such discussions were really overdue.  We need more similar forums to learn from one another about life and choices and offer support, especially among immigrant professionals.  Click for photos and recording of the forum.